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14 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Where is Kazakh visiting Pastor being held?

Concern is mounting about where Uzbekistan is holding a visiting Kazakh pastor, Rishat Garifulin, who has not been seen since his arrest by police in Samarkand on 8 February, after Christian literature was found on him. "Now it's almost a week later and we haven't heard anything about him or his whereabouts," Greater Grace sources told Forum 18 News Service. Samarkand police, who arrested Pastor Garifulin, have refused to confirm the arrest to Forum 18. His arrest comes as Pentecostal Pastor Dmitry Shestakov, who is awaiting trial in solitary confinement, is facing increasing attacks in the state-run media. Uzbek authorities are taking greater steps to isolate local religious communities from foreign contacts and have refused visas to and deported foreigners suspected of contacts with local religious communities. Uzbekistan is also continuing to crackdown on foreign religious charities. Christian charity World Vision, which works on HIV/AIDS projects, is the latest target for potential closure.

31 January 2007

KAZAKHSTAN: Do-it-yourself demolition for embattled Hare Krishna commune?

As official pressure on the Hare Krishna commune near the commercial capital Almaty mounts, three more home owners have been served demolition notices, Hare Krishna sources told Forum 18 News Service. If they fail to demolish their own homes by 2 February, the authorities will do so and charge them for the cost. Thirteen Hare Krishna-owned homes were bulldozed last November, though other homes in the village owned by non-Hare Krishna residents have not been touched. Other court cases are pending. The Kazakh authorities have failed to respond to a November 2006 offer to help from the OSCE Advisory Council on Freedom of Religion, but Gauhar Beyeseyeva of the Kazakh Foreign Ministry claimed to the head of the Hare Krishna commune: "We were denied the OSCE chairmanship specifically because of you people." Despite denying any religious motives to the moves against the commune, Amanbek Mukhashev defended the inclusion of Muslim and Orthodox clergy in the official Commission charged with examining the dispute: "The population of Karasai district is basically Orthodox and Muslim and it follows that we should have regard for the views of the representatives of these faiths."

30 January 2007

KAZAKHSTAN: President too busy with "important affairs" to meet Baptists

Amanbek Mukhashev, head of Kazakhstan's Religious Affairs Committee, has petulantly complained to Forum 18 News Service about a request from a group of Baptist churches to meet President Nursultan Nazarbayev to discuss state harassment of their congregations. "Instead of tearing the President away from important affairs the Baptists would do better to register their churches and not violate the law," he told Forum 18. The Council of Churches Baptists, who have over 100 congregations in Kazakhstan, estimate that more than 40 of their members have been fined for their role in worship services since legal restrictions on religious freedom were made harsher in July 2005. "It is perfectly natural that the President will not meet the Baptists," a Presidential Administration official stated. Pastor Yaroslav Senyushkevich commented to Forum 18 that "we regret that officials have such an attitude towards us."

22 December 2006

KAZAKHSTAN: More Hare Krishna home demolitions planned?

After the fining and forcing out from Kazakhstan of a Baptist for taking part in an "illegal" bible study, the Hare Krishna community is preparing to face another court hearing – due on 25 December – Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Asked whether he expects the next five Hare Krishna homes to be bulldozed after 25 December, a senior state religious affairs official told Forum 18 that "we don't know what the court will decide, but I don't expect so." Previous state assurances given to the Hare Krishna community have been broken. Maksim Varfolomeyev of the Hare Krishna community told Forum 18 that the court hearing is "unlikely to be over all in one day, but it's just a matter of time. Our previous experience shows that the decision will not be in our favour," he commented. A state-appointed Commission today (22 December) presented what Krishna devotees describe as a "totally false" version of events, for use as a press release. Human rights activists, who observed the Commission's work, were devastating in their criticism of the way it operated.

12 December 2006

KAZAKHSTAN: Foreign Baptist forced out for "illegal" bible discussion

After seven law-enforcement officials secretly filmed a foreign church member taking part in a bible discussion at a state-registered Baptist church, he was forced to leave the country Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Dan Ballast, an American who belonged for 11 years to the Spring of Water Church, was fined the equivalent of three months average salary and given a deportation order. This is the latest in a series of expulsions known to Forum 18. "This violates both freedom of religion and freedom of speech," a friend of Ballast's said. Kazakh law professor Roman Podoprigora told Forum 18 that "there are no provisions in law which prohibit foreigners from participating in religious ceremonies in different roles," and that "under the existing Religion Law, service in a registered religious organisation is not recognised as missionary activity." Asked by Forum 18 how officials knew to attend the service and film it, one church member responded: "Someone rang them. These things happen here." Ironically, officials had earlier praised Ballast for his educational work.

8 December 2006

KAZAKHSTAN: New threat to de-register partially demolished Hare Krishna community

In a new threat from Kazakhstan to the Hare Krishna commune it has partially demolished, moves appear to be underway to de-register the community Forum 18 News Service has learnt. During an "unofficial" visit to the commune by four regional religious affairs officials following orders from the capital Astana, highly intrusive questions were asked in an attempt to persuade the community to seek re-registration – even though there is no legal basis for this official demand. The leader of the visit was unable to explain to Forum 18 why he asked questions that are irrelevant to merely gaining legal status, and refused to explain who had organised the visit and for what purpose. Kazakhstan has made no reply to the OSCE's Advisory Council on religious freedom's 27 November statement that it is "deeply concerned" by the state's actions and has not responded to the Council's offer of help. The commune's demolition has caused worldwide protests, even sparking a video montage of footage of the demolition and apparent remarks of the fictional character Borat.

7 December 2006

UZBEKISTAN: State bars haj pilgrims from pilgrimage

Uzbekistan is restricting the number of haj pilgrimages – a requirement for all able-bodied adult Muslims who can do so – to some 20 per cent of the country's total possible number of pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Controls on pilgrims have been significantly increased, with potential pilgrims having to be approved by local Mahalla committees, district administrations, the NSS secret police and the state-run Haj Commission. "The authorities are deliberately giving a lower quota in regions of Uzbekistan where there are more believers," an Uzbek Muslim told Forum 18. "It would be better if most Uzbek pilgrims were elderly" the state-controlled Muftiate told Forum 18. Turkmenistan imposes the strictest Central Asian controls on haj pilgrims. Apart from Kazakhstan, all the other Central Asian states also ban non-state organised haj pilgrimages. In Kyrgyzstan last year, there were complaints that Kyrgyz places were taken by Chinese Muslims on false passports.

1 December 2006

KAZAKHSTAN: "This has nothing to do with religion" religious affairs official screams

Kazakhstan routinely denies that its attacks on and demolition of a Hare Krishna commune are religious freedom issues. Yet this is contradicted by the presence of a state religious affairs official, Ryskul Zhunisbayeva, at the latest court hearing, Forum 18 News Service notes. Questioned what her role was, Zhunisbayeva immediately screamed that this has "nothing to do with religion." Lawyers working with the community have withdrawn from the case. "You don't understand us – you have no family," one lawyer told a devotee, who commented that "Probably they're scared." Also, two Baptists' appeal against large fines for religious activity without state registration has been rejected. As the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Advisory Panel on religious freedom states that it is it is "deeply concerned" by Kazakhstan's actions, the country's bid – to be decided next week - to chair the OSCE in 2009 is attracting increasing opposition. This should only happen "if Kazakhstan takes immediate verifiable steps to implement its OSCE human rights pledges, including on freedom of religion or belief," the respected US Commission on International Religious Freedom has stated.

24 November 2006

KAZAKHSTAN: Will rest of Hare Krishna commune now be destroyed?

With almost a quarter of the Hare Krishna-owned homes in their Sri Vrindavan Dham commune on the outskirts of Almaty already destroyed, community members are afraid that the rest of the 66 homes – including their temple – could be next. "The community is in shock, but they are determined to defend their homes and place of worship," community member Govinda Swami told Forum 18 News Service. He says destruction of the temple would be "devastating". Neighbouring houses owned by non-Krishna devotees have not been touched and sources have told Forum 18 that President Nursultan Nazarbayev's brother has designs on the property. Local administration chief Bagdad Akhmetayev refused to say why the homes were being destroyed when the court merely ordered the devotees' eviction, telling Forum 18 "I simply came to watch the demolition and I am not prepared to make any comment. Please ask the court bailiffs directly." The bailiffs refused to talk to Forum 18. Police prevented OSCE officials from reaching the village during the 21 November destruction.

21 November 2006

KAZAKHSTAN: State bulldozes Hare Krishna commune, bids to chair OSCE

As Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is in London seeking support for his bid to chair the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), state authorities began today (21 November) bulldozing the only Hare Krishna commune in the region, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The costs of the demolition are being imposed by the authorities on the Hare Krishna devotees and OPON riot police have sealed off the commune. "At present a bulldozer is knocking down one house," Hare Krishna devotee Anastasia told Forum 18 from the site as she watched the destruction, "while a further four are being knocked down by hand." Officials carrying out the destruction have refused to speak to Forum 18. The demolition contradicts earlier Kazakh official assurances that all actions in the authorities long-running attempt to take over the commune would be frozen. Religious freedom and other human rights in Kazakhstan have been for some years under increasing threat from President Nazarbayev's government.

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